It wasn’t so long ago that Austin became a sleepy little town in the summer, drained of students and lulled into months of inactivity by the heat. The heat may not have changed, but Austin’s now a fast-paced city, any time of year. And some of its most beloved institutions, like the Long Center, have grown with it.
Proof of that is the fact that the Long Center saw 113,000 people come through its doors this summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day, many of them first-time visitors. That’s despite national trends, where attendance numbers for performing arts venues are flat or declining.
While great programming undoubtedly has a lot to do with that success, some Long Center staff say it’s also the way employees are valued that leads to a great team and a flagship venue.
For Tony Jilek, vice president of sales and marketing at the Long Center, the fact that the Long Center was different than other offices he’d worked in became obvious not long after he met Jamie Grant in 2011, when Grant became the Long Center’s executive director and CEO.
Jilek recalls attending a Long Center donor event shortly after marrying his partner of 14 years, Floyd. Out of habit, Jilek introduced Floyd as his partner instead of his husband. Grant noticed the introduction, and made a point of asking Jilek about it later.
“He said ‘You can tell me that this is none of my business, but you introduced Floyd as your partner and I just want to know, do you not introduce Floyd as your husband? I just needed to know that you didn’t feel it necessary to introduce him in any other way because of me.’ I started laughing, and it warmed my heart to hear that.”
Jilek also recalls Grant giving him advice before he and Floyd married, saying that getting married would feel different, even though they’d been together for a long time.
“I have worked in several performing arts centers before coming to Austin, and one of the things that was different about the Long Center was that they offered partner benefits. That is certainly a departure from my past experience. Floyd and I have been welcomed from the first day I walked in the building.”
For Grant’s part, it’s a no-brainer to treat all employees well.
“I’m a little surprised to even be having the conversation,” Grant said. “ I’ve worked in the theater for 30 years, and since Day 1, the only thing we’ve ever cared about is whether somebody can do the work or not. In every place I work, I want people to feel the environment here is such that they can create the best work possible. The way to do that is to ensure that they can be themselves.”
It may be the entertainment industry, but it’s hard work. Grant says he’s up at 5:30 every morning, and at his desk by 7:00am, and there’s often a lot of weekend work. That can take a toll on the family, but when an employee’s family feels valued and included, that means a happier family and a happier employee, he said.
It’s a practice that’s obviously working well. The Long Center has cemented its reputation as a home for the arts, but also as a community gathering place. When the U.S. was playing in the quarter finals of the World Cup last summer, Grant recalls a last minute decision to host a viewing of the game.
“The game started at 3:00pm on a weekday afternoon in July, and I remember someone coming into my office and saying ‘no one will come to this, are you nuts?’ And 6,000 people showed up. They could have stayed at home, or watched anywhere where there was air conditioning. But collectively that shared experience of watching the game with friends, that was powerful.”
Whether it’s David Sedaris, the Austin Opera, Trailer Food Tuesdays on the terrace, or Jimmy Kimmel broadcasting a week of live shows, the Long Center is playing an exciting role in a growing city. More than just a venue, it’s a community asset that’s growing along with Austin – growing so much, in fact, that estimates show 375,000 people will walk through its doors next year.
“It’s exciting to me how the Long Center is being perceived as a community gathering place,” Jilek said. “And it’s a pleasure to work at a performing arts crown jewel.”
For a full listing of events at The Long Center, click here.